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August 22, 2011

Moral Flatliners

By Spear's

Andrei Navrozov on why the Federation Fund — a mysterious Russian charity for children with cancer that doesn’t actually raise any money — makes him sick

of the last millennium, when the creature known as the It Girl first strutted the front page, it was fair game even for the leprechauns of the redtops to ridicule the creature’s arrival and to marvel at its ubiquity. But the journalists had no clue. In an age when money is not only paper, but paperless, an age in which democracy has the manners, though not the morals, of a Thai ladyboy, an age in which substance, in nearly every field of endeavour, is pretty much a hanging offence, laughing at an It Girl for saying or doing nothing is not just naive, it is inappropriate.

This past July, Moscow was the scene of a remarkable spectacle, officially designated as a charitable concert. The first time the concert was held, in December 2010 in St Petersburg, the ‘Federation Fund’ show drew attention to itself not so much because such personalities as Sharon Stone and Monica Bellucci had been flown in to pose for the cameras, but because a star guest named Vladmir Putin appeared on stage, sat himself at the piano and tapped out with one finger the opening bars of the informal anthem of the Soviet secret police, Where Motherland Begins.

In July the rigmarole was repeated, despite the absence of Mr Putin and, perhaps less dramatic, of another Hollywood heart-throb, the actor Dustin Hoffman.

It was again a huge success, as Sophia Loren sparkled in diamonds, Jose Carreras and Andrea Bocelli sang, and Woody Allen played the clarinet. Other stars in attendance included Francis Ford Coppola, Kevin Costner, Andy Garcia, Steven Seagal, Orlando Bloom, Jeremy Irons, Carole Bouquet and Isabella Rossellini.

The audience, in an auditorium built for 3,000, numbered 30, yet all traffic in the surrounding area of Sparrow Hills had been stopped and the nearby streets closed for 48 hours on special orders from the Kremlin, so not even a Russian mouse could slip through police cordons to get a nibble of all that Hollywood fame. In fact, not one Russian celebrity was conspicuous by his or her presence, with the exception of an imposing lady vaguely reminiscent of Imelda Marcos — Yelena Sever, wife of the event’s organiser doubling as the MC. ‘You take one look at her, and you just know she owns a lot of shoes,’ a Moscow friend has emailed.

For weeks preceding the July happening the streets of Moscow had been plastered with giant posters of the glamorous Sever, described as ‘Patroness of the Federation Fund’, though who this nice lady is and what the Fund does remained a mystery to Muscovites.

All anybody knew for sure was that ‘Putin played the piano for these guys in St Petersburg’. The press was unable to help, as the Fund’s founder and ambassador plenipotentiary, a certain Vladimir Kiselyov, has on numerous occasions told the press to buzz off, to jump into a lake, and to ‘stop bothering me, because I’ve got more important things to do than speak to journalists’.

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And the man proved himself right, because when the Russian minister of culture, Alexander Avdeyev, came on that stage, it was not to damn him but to praise his Fund for drawing attention to the plight of the nation’s sick children.

Such is the stated aim of the Fund. Not to collect money, which can instead be provided to the Fund by the government and then spent as Mr Kiselyov sees fit. Not to buy equipment for hospitals, which the Hollywood dignitaries can do directly, after a quick tour of the ophthalmic and oncology wards (‘because both begin with an “o”’, as an irritated Kiselyov once barked at a journalist on the Kommersant newspaper) followed by a caviar luncheon. The aim is ‘to raise awareness’, as the Fund’s website — which is not easily found on the internet by any of the Russian-language search engines, such as Yandex — declares, with modesty verging on global self-effacement.

As social mountaineering in fin de siècle Manhattan, as well as the quintessentially Protestant abyss between reality and appearance wherein it would have its tragic ending, found a chronicler in Tom Wolfe, so in Russia these recent events have been foretold by a writer by the name of Maxim Kantor, who five years ago published a remarkable novel entitled The Drawing Manual. The ‘Federation Fund’ scandal, still unfolding in the Russian media months after the event, is like a scene from this prescient book.

Truly we live in a new era, and it is folly to suppose that philanthropy should not follow cafe society with its It Girls, or international finance with its Madoffs, or the fine arts with its Hirsts, into a world of smoke and mirrors. Kiselyov’s ‘Federation Fund’ has beaten the West at its own game by putting the ‘It’ in charity. 

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